The choice to drink organic milk for most people is both for nutrition and for animal welfare concerns. My personal choice is mainly for better nutritional content.
Celebrating Organic September, Arla invited us to spend a day at one of their organic free range dairy farms. We met Dan Burdett the farmer, his family, his team, his 280 cows and recent batch of new born calves.
I wanted to find out for myself how organic milk is produced and to dispel the common myths that seem to keep circulating around the interwebs.
After the day we spent at this organic farm, I can say that Arla’s organic free range milk is produced with high animal welfare standards, non-GM feed, minimal antibiotics and low-intensity dairy farming methods. Our visit is documented below in more detail.
Cockhaise Farm Sussex
Cockhaise Farm in Sussex is an organic free-range farm that is part of the Arla farmers cooperative. It is currently farmed by Dan, a 3rd generation farmer, who keeps a herd of about 280 Friesian Cross and Swedish Red cross cows.
They were converted to an organic farm in 1999 which took 2 years. In that time they had to stop using artificial fertilisers and pesticides. In that period, the milk was not sold as organic.
They converted to organic because they were spending a lot of money on fertilisers artificial told them they could get the same results by growing grass and clover. They found that the grass was enough to feed their cows. The benefit to the cows and the people drinking the milk was huge.
They grow clover in the grasslands as it is a legume and adds nitorgen back into the soil, doing the job that fertilisers do. On the grasslands, you also find a variety of plants that attract more sunlight, plantain, clover, chicory, herbs and different varieties of grass. They are harvesting the sunshine.
They cross a lot of different bloodlines for more hardy cows. They are not bred for yield. Their cows that are fit and well will yield so they don’t need to breed for yield. The brown one in the picture is no different genetically. The black is dominant so most of the calves are black.
How are the organic cows looked after?
Here on this Arla farm, the organic free range milk is produced by cows that are fed on mainly grass and clover. (Organic milk is always from free range cows.) They are kept outdoors on lush green pastures for most of the year when the grass is available.
Weight of feed to growth is about 6:1. As most of grass is water. (It takes 1000 litres of water to make a litre of milk.) Most of what cows drinks comes out again as fertiliser.
The grassland on this farm is grown with bee and wildlife-friendly methods with no artificial fertilisers or herbicides. We walked through a couple of the pastures to see the calves and the pregnant cows. The grass was tall and covered in wildflowers.
I was curious if the pastures pick up any residual pesticides from neighbouring farms. There, the perimeter between the pastures and the neighbouring farm is just the width of a lane. It seems that the other farmers follow best practices to minimise the spread of the chemicals by never spraying when there is a strong wind blowing.
In the winter, when the grass is low, the cows are kept in barns and fed grass silage. This is the time that most of the cows are pregnant too. They are not fed any foodstuff that is genetically modified and with minimal addition of grains. The cows are only given antibiotics when they are ill.
They are turned out to the pastures again in Spring when the grass is lush again.
How much milk does one organic dairy cow produce?
On this organic farm, the cows only produce 6,500 litres of milk a year whereas, on an intensive commercial farm, the cows produce about 13,000 litres. The cows here are not used as intensely as those in commercial dairies. Their cows are working hard but not that hard. Their cows don’t have to be bred all year round, they have an easier management system.
All the milk that is produced is delivered to Arla’s Aylesbury plant. At collection, a sample of each tank’s milk is taken and is tested for a variety of things. In case there is a high level of hormones, pesticides and other micro organisms that are not compliant with the organic system.
There is also a taste and smell test too. Sometimes, the cows eat a patch of grass or herbs that can impart a strong flavour like wild garlic and this will contaminate the whole tank. This milk will then be discarded.
The herd is milked twice a day in the milking parlour with music playing as the cows like this. It has been said to improve milk production.
Growing new cows
At a year old, they are about 500kgs, they are served at 14 months old. They calve at 2 years old and weigh 300kgs, all that growth just from eating grass.
Early September is the time when all their cows are calving. In one of the calf pastures, we were introduced to a group of happy baby cows running around the lush green fields. These are only the female calves that will be reared for dairy production. The male calves are kept separately in a straw filled pens for about 2 weeks, ready to be sold to be reared for meat.
These young female cows will be moved to another farm where they will be fed on wild pastures, eating grass and growing for 18 months. They will then return to Cockhaise when they are old enough to start their working life as a dairy cow.
At Cockhaise, they try to time all the calves to be born in a 2 week window. This way, they can manage the age of the herd and their dairy production. They send off their calves to be reared until they are 18 months old. This frees up space on the farm to have more milking cows and increasing their milk production.
These are the pregnant cows that are about to calve. We witnessed the first few minutes of the life of a new calf in the field. We watched mummy cow clean the new baby and nudging it to encourage it to stand up. As soon as it takes its first steps, it starts to suckle. This first milk will have colostrum which has vital nutrients. The calves are then taken away and bottle fed.
The cows only calf 4 times before they are sold or culled. A normal dairy cow has an average lifespan of 20 years. On the farm here, they don’t keep them very long, on average about 4 years.
Cooking with organic free range milk
Chef demonstrating Sussex Smokey Scotch eggs and a vanilla creme brulee using Arla Organic Free-Range Milk. Recipes to follow.
Lots more cow photos
Arla Foods is a farmer owned, global dairy company and the largest dairy company. It’s a co-operative owned by 12,000 dairy farmers with circa 2,500 of whom are British. Dating back to 1881, Arla’s purpose is to secure the highest value for its farmers’ milk, while creating opportunities for their growth.
For more information on organic milk, check out @ArlaFoodsUK. You can find Arla organic free-range milk in supermarkets today.
EatCookExplore was a guest of Arla Foods